Taiwan president to attend pope's installation

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou will attend the installation Mass of Pope Francis in Vatican City, an official said Friday, in a rare European foray for the head of the diplomatically isolated island that underscores the tricky nature of its relations with China.

Ma and first lady Christine Chou will lead the Taiwanese delegation to the event, Vice Foreign Minister Shih Yea-ping said. She said Ma had received an official invitation from the Vatican, and that the Foreign Ministry expected that Italy would grant him transit rights through its territory.

Ma's visit came under fire from Beijing, which said Taipei should be careful not to damage the generally smooth relations between the two sides.

Since assuming Taiwan's presidency five years ago, Ma has lowered tensions across the 160-kilometer (100-mile) -wide Taiwan Strait to their lowest level since the two sides split amid civil war in 1949.

Taiwan and the mainland should "start from the overall picture of the relationship, cautiously handle sensitive issues and work together to cherish the good situation of peaceful development" between them, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.

Taiwan has full diplomatic relations with only 23 countries, most of them in Latin America, Africa, and the south Pacific.

Its only diplomatic ally in Europe is the Vatican, though even that tie remains tenuous.

The Vatican has long expressed a willingness to transfer its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, though it has made that conditional on China allowing its Catholics to worship freely, without Communist Party restrictions.

On Thursday China congratulated the new pope on his election, but said that establishing formal relations would depend on the Vatican cutting ties with Taipei and ceasing activities Beijing considers interference in its internal affairs.

Beijing normally tries to limit Taiwan's diplomatic exposure, part of its insistence that the island is part of its territory, with no sovereign rights of its own.

Shih said Taiwan had no contact with China on the issue of Ma's visit.

She said the Vatican's invitation reflected the fact that "we and the Vatican share common values like religious freedom and social justice."

Political scientist Alexander Huang of Taipei's Tamkang University said that despite Shih's insistence that there had been no formal contact with China on the visit, it was possible that semiofficial channels had been used to sound the Chinese side out.

He added that it was still too early to tell if newly installed Chinese President Xi Jinping had any involvement in the matter, or whether it signaled a new, more liberal Chinese line on increased diplomatic space for Taiwan.

"It is premature to try to judge Xi's attitude from a single episode," Huang said.

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Associated Press researcher Zhao Liang in Beijing contributed to this report.